Interview with Clara Saraiva, an undergraduate of Social Work in the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro (UFRJ), member of the National Executive Body of the Free National Assembly of Students (ANEL), and militant of the Unified Socialist Workers Party (PSTU, LIT-CI)
For you, what is the function and role of a student union?
For us, a student union’s role is to organize and mobilize to achieve the students’ demands in defense of free, quality public education and the rights of young people. A union should fight alongside the working class in order to strengthen the search for a different society, where people are no longer exploited and oppressed. Also, this is the role of student organizations, at the local (universities and schools) as well as federal level.
Please give us some background on how your student union formed and out of what conditions.
In 2007, Brazil witnessed one of the largest student struggles in recent history. The federal government, controlled by Lula da Silva (Workers’ Party), issued an order concerning all federal universities of the country called REUNI. The objective of this order was a profound restructuring of public universities, increasing the number of seats available without increased investment, therefore reducing the curriculum and decreasing financial aid. The goal was for universities to begin producing more cheap labor than critical-thinking and quality professionals.
In resistance to this attack, students rose up all over Brazil. We carried out large occupations of administration buildings, massive general assemblies, and huge marches in the streets. At that moment, the traditional student union in Brazil, the National Union of Students (UNE in Portuguese), sided with the government against the student movement. It abandoned its entire history of struggle and political independence and betrayed the student movement. That brought about what we call a process of reorganization of the student movement, since the students, who could no longer depend on their traditional entities of representation, began searching for alternative entities for their struggle.
Due to this situation, the necessity of a new national union to organize the students became apparent in the following years. Therefore, we called for the National Congress of Students that took place in Rio de Janeiro in 2009–in which nearly two thousand students participated, both as participants and as delegates elected by the bases they represented–and decided to form the Free National Student Assembly (ANEL in Portuguese).
What was the level of mobilization at the time you formed a student union?
When we decided to form ANEL in 2009, the movement was still dealing with the consequences of a powerful struggle that had spread throughout the country in the preceding two years. At the end of 2008, the global economic crisis, which began in the U.S. and stretched across the globe, reached Brazil. A series of attacks were unleashed against workers and the federal government made deep cuts to education. Therefore, the main theme of the founding congress of ANEL was the declaration that young people and workers would not pay for the crisis!
How was student struggle effected by the choice to make the union a main focus of the movement?
The outbreak of student struggle was a determining factor in reaching the conclusion that a new student union was necessary. In our struggle, we faced the same enemy all around the country–the federal and state governments. We used the same methods of struggle everywhere, including assemblies, marches and occupations of administration buildings, and we felt the difference made by everyone’s unified support of the same objective. Therefore, through being engaged in struggle, students concretely became aware of their power and the need for an organization that could better capitalize on such power.
What was it like building the union? What challenges did you face?
Since ANEL was founded in 2009, we have come up against a series of challenges. First, our aim of convincing students that they need to fight for their rights. Many students are complacent, having been taught since their childhood to take an individualistic approach to problems in their lives, instead of searching for collective solutions. Therefore, starting with concrete problems that students face on a daily basis, and looking to carry out campaigns with which all students could identify, we were able to move forward with ANEL’s consolidation.
We carried out campaigns calling for quality education and for 10% of the GDP (The Gross Domestic Product of Brazil) to be designated for public education; in support of worker’s struggles like the strikes of teachers, postal workers, firefighters, bank workers, etc., in solidarity with the victims of the powerful earthquake in Haiti and in opposition to the Brazilian troops stationed there, in opposition to the oppression of women, blacks and gays, and in support of the Arab Spring and all the youth struggles around the world–like the indignados movement in Spain and the Occupy movement in the U.S.
Our most important battles were against the government and the university administrations, who through repression and ideological manipulation sought to defeat our campaigns and struggles. However, we were also faced with debates within the student movement. There were sectors that opted to stay inside the UNE and not build ANEL that are part of the leftist opposition to the federal government. With this in mind, we always strive to carry out unified campaigns and struggles whenever possible in order to strengthen the movement. And we are continuing the heated discussions about the need to build a new national student union in our country that can be an alternative to the UNE.
What were some of the central debates that arose in the formation the student union?
In the National Congress of Students, the space in which ANEL was founded, there were basically three different positions. First, and the one that emerged victorious, advocated the formation of a new alternative union to the UNE, to be democratically controlled by the student base and allied with the workers. Another position was that a new union should not be formed at the moment, and that the Left should continue to agitate within the internal forums of the UNE. And finally, there was another middle ground proposal, that defended the need to stay inside the UNE while moving forward with the construction of a National Forum that would serve as a collective of those inside and outside of the UNE, but not be built as a union.
What internal structure did you ultimately choose? Is it centralized or federated? What were your considerations?
In the final session of the Congress, nearly 90% of the students voted for the formation of ANEL. Its organizational structure calls for Assemblies (at the national and state levels) every semester, and congresses every two years, where delegates elected by the bases vote. The Congress decides the platform of the union and the main focuses for that period. The Assemblies carry out the program with political campaigns, and discuss the main struggles, and those that vote are the representatives of the organizations of the base, such as academic centers, fraternities and sororities, and student governments (DCEs). Each Assembly elects an Executive Committee (at the national and state levels) that constantly meets to carry out the tasks decided on. Thus, the structure is centralized by an organ in which all members have equal authority (the Executive Committees), that maintains the constant functioning of the union, is always subordinate to the Assemblies, has mandates that can be revoked at every meeting and does not have a hierarchical structure of positions (such as President, Secretary, General, etc.).
How do students join the union? And do students pay dues?
ANEL is an open union, meaning that in order to be a member, all that is required is agreement with our political campaigns and organizing around them on your campus. However, at our last Congress (June 2011), we moved forward in creating a financial plan for the union. Currently, in order to be a member of ANEL, you must hold a member’s card which costs R$10 and is valid for one year. Additionally, the base organizations that make up ANEL and the statewide executive committees must pay dues every two months that go towards subsidizing the trips and materials that we have to produce. In our opinion, this debate is central to maintaining political independence, since without independent financing, it is impossible to maintain a fighting union.
Which sectors of education are represented in your student union? Do private schools also participate?
ANEL is made up of university and secondary students since we understand that the struggle of all the youth should be unified in a single program.
Does your campus administration officially recognize you? Do they negotiate with you? If so, over which issues? Do you have a contract?
The Central Board of Students (DCEs in Portuguese) negotiates directly with the University Councils. Each university has its own DCE, which is determined by annual elections, in which a great number of the student body participates. Each DCE has a position regarding whether or not it affiliates with ANEL. The DCE has seats on the University Councils but students are always a small minority, representing just 15% of the total number of seats. They are for the most part recognized by the administrations and University Councils, but most of the time, the student members’ interests are counter-posed to those of the non-student members, and therefore it becomes necessary to organize a direct struggle in defense of the students’ demands. As for ANEL, we have already spoken a few times to the federal government to push forward the demands of the students. However, the government continues to recognize the UNE as the legitimate representation of the students, since this union has been completely co-opted and defends all of the government’s projects.
What is the internal decision-making process? What level of autonomy do individual campuses and departments have? Who has the right to call a strike, for example?
I believe that this question was already answered in number 7, concerning the structure of ANEL. Department, university, and college representatives have the autonomy to put forward their positions but the union only takes up these positions when the majority agrees on them. Any debate inside ANEL is decided by the majority of the students, in the Congresses and Assemblies, and in the Executive Committees, after which they are centralized in order to carry out the decisions.
What is your relationship with labor unions? With political parties? With student government? With popular struggles?
Since the founding of ANEL, we stressed the principle of alliance with workers and their unions. We are part of CSP Conlutas, a mass coordination of labor unions and popular struggles that is also made up of students and movements against oppression. In late April, we will send a student delegation to the Congress of CSP Conlutas. We always participate in the social struggles of the workers and the popular movements. As for the political parties, ANEL is autonomous, meaning we are against any type of control, financing, or infiltration by the political parties. This does not prevent students who are a part of any political party from participating in the ANEL forums, although they must adhere to the internal democracy of the forums.
What are ongoing challenges you are facing and your perspectives for continuing to strengthen this work?
Our main challenge continues to be that of mobilizing all of Brazil’s youth to fight back against being forced to pay for the global economic crisis, to defend our rights, such as access to a quality public education, and to be an unconditional ally of the working class. Another challenge has been moving forward in cementing the functioning of ANEL and its finances, which were key debates at our last Congress. In addition, building an increasingly larger organization in every state, with bigger Assemblies every time that include more students, universities, and schools. We believe that this is the path to strengthening the reorganization of the student movement and pushing forward the development of ANEL, so it can be an alternative leadership of the student struggles of the next period!